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Pa. suddenly expands COVID-19 vaccine access, but limited supply makes next steps unclear

COVID-19 vaccinations Lancaster EMS

COVID-19 vaccines were administered to those in Phase 1A at the Lancaster EMS Headquarters, 1829 Lincoln Highway, in East Lampeter Township on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. 

As soon as Kenneth Hartenstine saw a tweet around noon Tuesday that COVID-19 vaccines are now available to Pennsylvanians over 65, he immediately went to the state’s website to confirm — it was true.

Hartenstine went through the steps to verify that he and his wife, who is 67, were eligible under the state’s revised plan, then he started making calls.

First he called the vaccine provider the state’s map said was closest to his home — Lancaster Rehabilitation Hospital on Good Drive, which directed him to Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health. A receptionist at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health directed him to call 2-1-1 for assistance, where the person on the line told Hartenstine their documentation said to direct him to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

“I said, ‘You know, what you’ve done is put me in a never-ending loop. Because theoretically, what I’ll do now is go back to the webpage, go through the steps again, call Rehab Hospital, they’ll tell me to call the General Hospital, who’s going to tell me to call 2-1-1 and I’ll be back with you in about 15 to 20 minutes for you to tell me the contact them again,’ ” Hartenstine told the receptionist.


Underprepared

Hartenstine was among many Lancaster County residents who took action immediately Tuesday after the state changed its COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan to include residents 65 and older, but ended up frustrated and unhappy. As it turns out, almost all of the locations in Lancaster County were not at all prepared to set appointments, let alone have enough doses to provide vaccines to the newly eligible population.

The head of the Pennsylvania COVID-19 vaccine task force, Cindy Findley, announced the changes to the state’s phased approach at a press conference Tuesday afternoon, aligning with U.S. Health and Human Services recommendations announced last week.

The expansion increased the population of who could get the vaccine from 1 million state residents to 3.5 million instantly, while the number of vaccine doses allocated to the state remained at a little over 1 million.

In Lancaster County, close to 100,000 residents are over 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 estimate.

The change came “without any prewarning,” Josh Parsons, chair of Lancaster County commissioners, wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday afternoon.

“The single most important factor on COVID vaccine distribution is receiving enough vaccine. As quickly as approved vaccinators in Lancaster County are receiving it, they are turning it around and getting it into arms,” Parsons wrote. “However, we are currently only receiving a very small allotment of our total needs.”

Findley acknowledged Tuesday afternoon that the limited vaccine supply from the federal government can cause delays in how quickly newly eligible individuals can be vaccinated.

“We are well aware that we don’t have enough vaccines to meet the demand at this point,” she said.


Plan meets reality

The state announced Tuesday that people over 65 and those with high-risk medical conditions ages 16 to 64 could immediately start making appointments with their local providers — providers with available vaccines were marked with green dots on the state’s map.

“You can use a short vaccine eligibility quiz to determine if it is your turn to get vaccinated,” Findley said. “If it is your turn to be vaccinated now, you can go to the interactive map.”

Because the state doesn’t have a centralized appointment portal, once a person knows which provider is closest to them, they can directly call the provider to make an appointment, she said.

However, LNP | LancasterOnline found that getting an appointment wasn’t quite that easy.

Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital is unable to schedule appointments for patients that reach out to the hospital at this time, but updates can be found at lghealth.org/vaccine, said Mary Ann Eckard, hospital spokesperson.

“We’re going to act as quickly as we can to procure product for the patients in our county. We have a limited supply at this time,” Eckard said.


One accepting appointments

WellSpan Health has begun accepting online vaccine appointments, according to Ryan Coyle, a spokesperson for the hospital system.

“Eligible individuals can use the MyWellSpan patient portal to schedule a vaccine. Once an individual receives their first dose the system automatically populates the ability to schedule a second dose in the appropriate timeframes,” Coyle said. “That same scheduling process will be utilized for additional phases later in 2021.”

Like Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, a UPMC spokesperson said the hospital system will update patients as vaccines become available.

“We have not yet received an additional allotment of vaccine beyond what has been allocated for health care workers and skilled nursing facility residents and staff,” said Kelly McCall, public relations director.

Similarly, Lancaster Rehabilitation Hospital said its supply has already been allocated for staff and that it’s unclear when the provider will receive more vaccine doses.

A receptionist at Stauffer’s Drug Store in New Holland said the supply of 200 vaccines it received two weeks ago is already exhausted — the representative suggested people check the pharmacy’s website and Facebook page in order to stay up-to-date with vaccine availability.


‘Give us a fair shot’

A spokesperson for the state’s Health Department said that there will be more vaccines “in the future,” but did not give any additional information on when additional doses will be allocated.

The department didn’t say whether there are other ways to take the eligibility quiz or find a nearby vaccine provider for individuals with limited internet access or those who can’t navigate the website well.

Hartenstine didn’t stop his calls with the local vaccine providers. He called Gov. Tom Wolf’s office, he called Democratic Sen. Bob Casey’s office and he called Republican state Sen. Ryan Aument’s office.

He couldn’t get anyone on the phone.

“The reason I wanted to be called urgently, is … my wife had sepsis in 2016, and almost died,” he said. “One of the things they told me was with sepsis, and all the antibiotics, it has torn down her immune system to a point where even a common cold could be disastrous for her.”

With a daughter-in-law who works in COVID-19 ICU units at Cleveland Clinic, Hartenstine said he understands the importance of getting front-line medical professionals vaccinated immediately.

“But after they get those high exposures, then we who have health issues ... we (over 65 and high-risk) need to be the first in line,” he said. “You got to give us a fair shot to do that.”

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